Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Smith Purdy (1872–1936)

by C. J. Cummins

This article was published:

View Previous Version

John Smith Purdy (1872-1936), by unknown photographer

John Smith Purdy (1872-1936), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H00086

John Smith Purdy (1872-1936), health officer and soldier, was born on 31 January 1872 at Morpeth, Northumberland, England, son of George Purdy, market gardener, and his wife Frances, née Smith. He was an exhibitioner and school captain at the Grammar School of King Edward VI, Morpeth, before studying medicine at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen (M.B., C.M., 1898; M.D., 1904). He soon joined his older brother James in New Zealand and was briefly surgeon at Otaki hospital. In January 1901 he went to the South African War as surgeon-captain in the 6th and 10th New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

Demobilized in England, after working in various London hospitals Purdy obtained the diploma of public health (Cambridge, 1903) and his Aberdeen M.D. for a thesis on the treatment of syphilis. On 1 December 1904 in London, he married Emily Crake, daughter of a leather merchant. Briefly in general practice at Liverpool, he joined the Quarantine Service of Egypt as Foreign Office nominee in 1905. In Cairo he was associated with Dr E. T. Ross and his anti-malaria work. Next year he was in charge of the quarantine hospitals at El Tor, Sinai, for pilgrims returning from Mecca.

Returning to New Zealand in February 1907, Purdy was district medical officer, Auckland, but, seeing no future in New Zealand in competition with his brother, became chief health officer in Tasmania in 1910. He helped to have food laws and inspections stiffened. In 1913 he was appointed jointly metropolitan medical officer of health in Sydney, responsible to the chief medical officer J. A. Thompson, and city health officer, responsible to the Sydney Municipal Council.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914, Major Purdy sailed with the 1st Division, serving with the Australian Army Medical Corps as specialist sanitary officer for the Australian forces in Egypt in 1915 and, promoted lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1916, at the 3rd Australian General Hospital, in charge of sanitation at Tel-el-Kebir, a camp of over 30,000 Australians and New Zealanders. From October he commanded the 10th Field Ambulance and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for conspicuous gallantry in tending the sick and wounded at Messines, Belgium, in mid-1917. Having been mentioned in dispatches, he commanded (as temporary colonel) the 3rd A.G.H., Abbeville, France, from January to June 1918.

Back in Sydney in September, Purdy used his military experience in the campaigns against the influenza pandemic of 1919 and two minor outbreaks of plague next year. From 1919 he lectured on sanitary law at Sydney Technical College. Otherwise his duties were primarily administrative, dealing with established public health services of the traditional sanitation type. In his annual reports as city health officer to the Sydney Municipal Council he emphasized his activities in slum clearance and provision of a healthier city. He was particularly proud of Sydney's falling death rate which he attributed mainly to improved sanitation and purity of foodstuffs. He published over twenty articles, mainly in the Transactions of the Australian Medical Congress, the Australasian Medical Gazette and the Medical Journal of Australia. As president of the Health Society of New South Wales in 1921, he inaugurated Health Week and remained chairman of its committee until 1936. He was also chairman of the Public Health Association of New South Wales, president of the Australian Association for Fighting Venereal Disease and of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales, and influential in formulating slum clearance programmes.

Purdy retained links with the Australian Army Medical Service, transferring to the reserve as colonel in 1932. Active in the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, he was State president in 1929. He also devoted much time to the Boy Scouts' Association, receiving its Silver Wolf badge from Lord Baden Powell, and to the St John Ambulance Association; its deputy chairman, he was an honorary associate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1911), the Royal Geographical Society of London (1903-09), the Royal Sanitary Institute, London (1915), and of the Society of Medical Officers of Health, England (1930) and was awarded the French Médaille d'honneur des epidémies in 1933.

Remembered by his colleagues as austere, sincere and dedicated, he was engrossed in public health and remote from his colleagues in general practice. A member of the Imperial Service Club, Sydney, he lived at Bellevue Hill. He died in St Luke's Hospital on 26 July 1936 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him: his elder son Cecil became a notable chess-player.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War 1914-18, vols 1, 2 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940)
  • London Gazette, 22 Dec 1917
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 12 Sept 1936
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Nov 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Apr 1921, 3 June, 18 Nov 1924, 2 Aug 1930, 7 July 1936.

Citation details

C. J. Cummins, 'Purdy, John Smith (1872–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Smith Purdy (1872-1936), by unknown photographer

John Smith Purdy (1872-1936), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H00086

Life Summary [details]


31 January, 1872
Morpeth, Northumberland, England


26 July, 1936 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.